Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 13 2018 02:00PM

Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”


Let me paraphrase: Of all authors with a reputation for writing romances, Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of writing something romantic.


Look, for example, at the latest work of the Internet Truthiness Quote Machine: a recent piece on the website of Travel + Leisure magazine offering “101 Romantic Messages to Keep the Love Alive While You're Apart.” The suggestions include a list of fifty “Romantic Quotes for Love Letters,” two of them attributed to Jane Austen.


Given Austen’s popular reputation as a purveyor of swoony, rose-tinted chick lit about handsome young men courting pretty girls in high-waisted dresses while wandering the grounds of palatial English estates, you’d think it would be quick work to find Austen quotes for such a list.


And yet only one of the two quotes that T+L attributes to Austen was actually written by her, and that one – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I have loved none but you,” from Persuasion – seems an odd choice for a message to an accepted lover, since it bespeaks the writer’s uncertainty that his feelings will be returned.


Meanwhile, the other quote – “To love is to burn, to be on fire”— is not by Austen at all. It’s a line from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which the ITQM has been busily misattributing for years. (For details, check out this excellent blog post by researcher Sue Brewton, a woman whose obsession with misquotation rivals my own. I can’t believe I’ve only just stumbled across the work of this soul sister.)


So of T+L’s two Austen love quotes, one is faux and one is out of context. That record is bad, yes, but hardly unprecedented. As blog readers know, I’ve been banging on about both problems for years. Indeed, one of the leading examples of out-of-context distortions concerns a love quote: As I’ve noted before, the supposedly swoony start to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, in Pride and Prejudice -- "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” – is, in context, not so romantic after all. *


But for would-be Austen love-quoters, the main problem is that despite her reputation for lovey-doveyness, which largely derives from the movies based on her work, Austen isn’t actually a romance writer: she’s a satirist whose stories happen to concern courtship, the crucial moment of decision in a genteel young woman’s life. Thus it is that these alleged romance novels offer a startling paucity of love scenes that Internet listicle-makers can mine for ardent tidbits.


Janeites are well aware of Austen’s stinginess in this regard. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon propose to the Dashwood sisters offstage; Edmund Bertram sues for Fanny’s hand in a couple of highly ironic summary paragraphs; Catherine Morland is “assured of [Henry Tilney’s] affection” in words that readers must imagine for themselves; and Darcy’s successful proposal is the height of respectful restraint – “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” I’m partial to Mr. Knightley’s declaration – “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” – but note that this is a love quote about the impossibility of love quotes. Captain Wentworth stands alone among Austen heroes in his forthright avowal of his feelings, and as for the heroines – well, let’s just say that Austen’s description of Emma’s reply to her suitor (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”) pretty much covers them all.


Why is it so hard to find certifiably, one-hundred-percent-genuine, heart-warming Jane Austen quotes about love? Mr. Knightley’s proposal offers a clue. Unlike the denizens of our therapeutic age, Austen is suspicious of people who talk fluently about their most intense and private emotions. If you can manufacture beautiful phrases about love, she suggests, you probably don’t have much time left to actually experience it. I shudder to imagine what she would have thought about people who turn to Internet listicles for advice on romantic messaging.



* And lest I find myself tempted to stop obsessing on this topic, just a couple of days after I published this post, the website Everyday Power -- founded in 2010 by a middle-school English teacher who wanted to provide "relevant and meaningful material he felt his students needed to experience" -- produced a list of "50 Love Quotes For Your Husband To Make Him Feel Appreciated." The three Jane Austen quotes on the list include Mr. Darcy's first proposal (twice! Don't ask me), and yet another not-in-Austen line -- “My heart is and always will be yours" -- from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay. According to the site, Everyday Power is "a curriculum resource for many schools across the country." The mind boggles.



By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 10 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature work features only one character of color: the teenaged West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender,” who receives a passing mention near the end of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death.


The lily-white nature of Austen’s cast of characters isn’t surprising, given the racial makeup of the rural English world she knew best. What is intriguing is a recent spate – I think we can call it a trend! -- of Austen fanfic, in both book and screen form, featuring characters of color.


The latest example is Unmarriageable, by the journalist and novelist Soniah Kamal, which updates the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Pakistan, much as did the short stories in last year’s Austenistan.


But although the Indian subcontinent, as I’ve noted before, is a longtime hotbed of Austen adapters, the current characters-of-color trend is broader.


Late last summer, a production company acquired the movie rights to Ayesha At Last, a Pride and Prejudice update set among young Muslims in modern-day Toronto, and HarperCollins published Pride, a P&P update set among young Latinos and African-Americans in Brooklyn.


Then, last month, Lifetime TV announced plans for Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta – yes, a P&P update set against the backdrop of a black church in Georgia. (The producers may have a good idea here: it might be easier to keep these versions straight if the titles of all P&P spinoffs were required to identify the adaptation’s location, CSI-style.)


The impulse to adapt Austen’s stories -- or at least her most famous one -- to characters whose life experiences diverge significantly from those of the people she knew is yet more proof, were any needed, of the universality of her incisive portraits of families, relationships, and comings-of-age. I haven’t yet read the latest offerings, but with luck the writers will use Austen’s narrative template as a vehicle for reflecting on the issues of class and gender that we still wrestle with, two centuries after Austen’s time – as well as the issues of race that she mostly ignored.


No idea how Unmarriageable will stack up against all these other products of the ever-churning Fanfic Factory. But one thing is for sure: Her publisher, Penguin Books, is just a little bit off when it calls Kamal’s novel a “one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 6 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen was a novelist, not an accountant, therapist, scientist, or priest. But you wouldn’t know it from the array of books recruiting her as an authority on, say, game theory, thrift, dating (for instance, here, here and here), and life itself.


Thus it came as no surprise last month to encounter a Philadelphia Inquirer headline posing the question, “Was Jane Austen a health and wellness guru?”


To which I would answer: No, obviously.


But here’s a shocker: Bryan Kozlowski, a chef whose forthcoming book is titled The Jane Austen Diet, disagrees with me. According to the Inquirer interview, Kozlowski sees “connections between the latest discoveries in the science of eating, exercise, and wellness and the somewhat similar holistic philosophies that Austen wrote about 200 years ago.”


It’s possible that the book, which won’t be published until March, treats these matters in a nuanced and useful way. But evidence from the interview isn’t promising: Kozlowski’s claims about Austen’swellness “philosophies” seem to amount to little more than observations about everyday life in the rural England of the Regency, dressed up as assertions about conscious life choices.


A person who walks everywhere because cars haven’t been invented yet and uses very little sugar because it’s a hugely expensive import isn’t a marvelous exemplar of healthy living with “a very relaxed attitude to working out.” She’s a person belonging to a not-yet-fully-industrialized age whose relative primitivism entailed some accidental health benefits, as well as encompassing a whole bunch of problematic practices (e.g., bleeding, leeching) and unavoidable technological gaps (no antibiotics, no anesthetic).


Indeed, Austen’s own untimely death – probably from an illness that would have been curable in our own time -- is surely an inconvenient data point for a writer holding her up as a model of wellness. Live like Jane Austen, and die at forty-one!


Perhaps I would feel more charitable if Kozlowski didn’t seem prone to sloppy use of Austen’s work, ripping a Sense and Sensibility quote out of context in order to recruit Elinor Dashwood to the cause of body positivity, and citing Austen’s use of the word “thin” to describe the sickly and depressed as evidence that she would have disapproved of the modern obsession with weight. (I will, however, cut him some slack on the article’s confusion of Miss Bates with Jane Fairfax: perhaps that was the reporter’s error and not his.)


Overall, though, color me skeptical. On the other hand, Kozlowski’s book apparently includes Regency recipes, including one for spruce beer. So that’s a plus.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


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